Friday, June 09, 2006

ISEAS: Singapore — Place or Nation?

Certain parts are so painfully obvious. Wished I was there to listen than to read this second hand newspaper account.

As for the failure part (esp if she's referring to academics) - you have to know that most of the Singaporean students are on scholarships. This means they have to meet certain GPA requirements. For the others: if you are paying ~USD40,000 a year, do you want to let your (parents') money go to waste by scoring Cs, Ds or Fs?

Fear of failure stifles nationhood

Don on how those who truly care for Singapore will stay here through thick and thin

Friday • June 9, 2006

Clement Mesenas

Singaporeans and Malaysians studying overseas are readily identifiable, it seems, because of their kiasu attitude.

And this attitude apparently prevails even when they are steeped in the liberal culture of the American East Coast colleges such as Wesleyan, Wellesley and Harvard, said Professor Linda Lim, a Singaporean who has been teaching in the United States for more than 20 years.

Ms Lim — an economist and a professor of strategy at the University of Michigan's School of Business — recalled asking a recent batch of such students after a lecture at Brown University, including government scholars, if they were afraid of failure.

"Nearly all of the audience of 70 students raised their hands," Ms Lim told her audience at an Institute of South East Asian Studies seminar yesterday.

Ms Lim, who spoke on the topic, "Singapore — Place or Nation? Implications for Economy, State and Identity", evoked lively interest from her audience made up mainly of academics and diplomats.

She contended that tolerance of risk and acceptance of failure are required for political democracy, business entrepreneurship and scientific discovery — all of which Singapore aspires to.

She said that such a culture could even have an impact on the economy. Many foreigners here, she argued, did not see Singapore as a "nation" but a "stepping stone".

Over the last 10 years, she got to know many Chinese and Indian nationals who studied at Singapore schools and universities, often with scholarships provided by the Singapore government.

They worked in Singapore for a few years and then applied to the US MBA programmes such as the one at Michigan University.

"To my knowledge none has ever returned to Singapore after graduating with MBAs, their goal all along having been to use the place as a stepping-stone to the US job market," she said.

Singapore to them is just a place to study and work — like Ann Arbor, Chicago, New York, San Francisco or London — whereas their nation remains China or India or, for some, eventually the US, she said.

"This is only to be expected of a place which is not a nation, at least not for those passing through," said Dr Lim.

National identity, she felt, has its basis in an emotional affiliation rather than pragmatic self-interest. A person who opts for Singapore because it gave him or her a good job, good lifestyle, good education for the children, is only interested in Singapore as a place.

Then there are those who stick around when Singapore is in trouble and cannot guarantee a good life, and those who are concerned with the welfare of others, or try to improve things even at personal risk. These people are of the nation, and not just the place, said Ms Lim.

What is the way forward? Promote active civic and political participation, and inculcate the "sense of ownership".

"As parents and teachers, we know that the best way to develop our children and students is to let them 'own projects' and make their own mistakes while 'learning-by-doing' even though we are more efficient and better at doing everything than they are," she said. So there was no point in encouraging citizens to be contented, apathetic and dependent on the state.

"That would perhaps be a greater threat to nationhood and national identity," she said.

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